Just Keep Moving. No matter how slow, no matter how painful. Whether in the hottest reaches of the blazing sun or the darkest cold of the night. Through every emotional upheaval, highest elation, and lowest stagnation. From mile 1 to mile 100. That was my mantra: Just Keep Moving.
The gun went off at 7 am. Wait, you’re telling me there was no gun, what? Well it did start, I know that for sure. All 200ish set off and quickly fit their individual pace into that single file crawl through the trees on the meadow trail. For me it was nice and easy, hold back, conserve energy.
Then suddenly from up ahead, “Which way?” and I look up from the trail and feet of the guy ahead of me who is wearing sparkly shorts to see 20 odd runners stopped cold, the front runner at an intersection with no orange marker. “Uh oh.” I turn around and see nobody behind me. “Oh, shit! I guess that is what that guy was yelling about back there.” The race director had warned us about playing follow the leader and not 5 miles into the course and I already took a wrong turn. Time to turn around and back track. Luckily it was only about a quarter of a mile back to the sharp left turn that we missed. Bonus miles!
Good thing that this happened in the beginning of the race and I was able to keep going and learn my lesson. At that point doing some bonus miles is not a big deal, but at mile 90 it could be completely defeating. When I get back to the trail I fit right back into the single file procession and even used this to my advantage as these runners were just a hair slower and helped me keep a relaxed pace and just keep moving. I was through the first aid station quickly and feeling quite optimistic about the whole enterprise, yet the absurd thought keep creeping back into my skull: you still have 93 miles to go!
Many people ask: why did I choose to run 100 miles? There are several reasons and some mostly adequate answers such as: I enjoy trail running more than roads, I like the views, I have a longing for adventure restless nature, and I value setting and pursuing lofty goals….these are all true, but truer still is this: Mainly I am dealing with this perpetual existential crises called life. I’m not fool enough to think there is an absolute answer, at least not a readily obtainable one, but this is one way to cope, to manage, to push oneself to the edge. Plus I like the views.
One important trick is to break the race up into segments, aid station to aid station and don’t start counting down miles until the very end. So, it was after about 23 miles and the Penny Pines aid station that we descended into the valley of death, or at least it felt like it. Somebody turned up the heat on the furnace in Noble Canyon. The descent is rather calm and a little shaded, but soon the trail becomes rocky and my foot pain really flares up. That’s what I get for attempting a 100 miler with even a mild case of plantar fasciitis.
To add to my fun I soon run out of water, but wait, just up ahead I see a stream! A beautiful icy stream, a real oasis in this dessert! Then boom! I am flat on my face. Ouch. “Are you OK?” calls out a runner stopped at the stream. I hop back to my feet and walk up to the stream. The ice cold water is a great relief as I dip my bandana, cool my head, and splash away some of the dirt. No blood gushing cuts, just a few scrapes.
After a few more hills and several more dry stream beds I begin to hear the oh so welcoming music that signals an upcoming aid station. “Show me something beautiful!” I recurring thought I have whenever I feel an aid station may be near. And behold girls in bikinis sponging down overheating runners, suddenly I don’t mind the heat soo much.
Finally, I reach the Aid station that came to be known as Carnage 1 and Carnage 2! It was here, on the hottest day of the year, the hottest day in the race’s history that runners began dropping like flies. The ever dreaded DNF. I was still feeling pretty good, I guess training in Arizona really helped deal with the sizzle. For me it was really just a decision that had already been made. There was no way I was dropping from this race. They would have had to knock me out and carry me down the mountain. All I had to do was Just Keep Moving.
Now I appreciate their zeal and we certainly could not pull of this feat without the aid station volunteers, but a camelback full of ice and no water? Well I know I wont die as I can always open up the bladder and suck on the ice, but C’mon man! Give me some freaking water.
This section of the race is a gentle loop around a small mountain, but it is all exposed and during the hottest part of the day. Temperatures were getting up to around 108. I pass several people including sparkly shorts guy, unfortunately I would never see him again. This begins to be a theme in this race as people are dropping like flies. You would get used to seeing people with a similar pace then you then all of the sudden, whoosh! They were gone. Just not prepared for this heat, but I’m an Arizona boy the heat wont phase me. Until it does…
Back at Carnage 2 and the bikinis, this time I plead with them, “less ice, less ice, more water.” Which the volunteers interpreted to mean more ice, more ice! Looking back the girl did comment that it was already full of ice. I guess my processor was not functioning at full capacity. But not all ice is bad at this point. The ice in my bandana wrapped around my neck is greatly appreciated, and helping get my core temperature to a tolerable level.
So up the mountain we go! On a paved road, straight up. The water soon runs out once again and if not for the “secret” aid station at the top of the paved section I would have been in a world of hurt. But thankfully there it was to top off my camelback with good old fashioned water (too add to the ice block I have in there). I grab a green popsicle and head back out and up the mountain. With a bladder full of water and a green popsicle in my hand I take it a little easy and enjoy a nice mountain stroll. Thank you for the green popsicle!
And now its 2pm and hot, damn hot. And I am climbing up an exposed mountain trail. I pass couple of guys who are just wrecked, sitting on the side of the trail I inquire as to their health and just keep moving, noting to inform the aid station of the situation out on the trail. The are all too aware of this. They had managed this race for over a dozen years and this was by far the hottest it has ever been. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes you get heat stroke.
50 miles in just over 11 hours, even after that hellish climb I am making great time. I start making the inevitable pace calculations and the thought crosses my mind that even with the eventually slow down I could still make it in under 24 hours, but I remind my self “you have a long and painful night still to come.” Just keep moving.
“Show me something beautiful!” Nope not this time, just another hill. And while there may sometimes be an aid station, one thing you quickly acclimate your self to is the simple fact that whenever you crest one hill, there will always be another hill.
Finally I arrive at the Sunset Aid Station, a milestone at mile 51.5. I’m over half way! But I also know I have a 30 mile loop at nighttime ahead of me only to return to this very spot. Only then would it feel like a real milestone. I took a few extra minutes to have the medical staff care for a possible building blister. It was just a hot spot, but they kindly applied some protective mole skin to be safe. Then I head out on the 30 mile loop with several ups and downs and the last really big long climb to return to this station sometime in the early morning.
And it hits me. I’m back at nearly six thousand feet and my energy level just drops and I have over 48 miles to go. This will be an interesting 30 mile loop with another major climb at the end, but right now the main thing I have to contend with is this damn double vision.
After pushing up the mountain in the intense heat and totally exposed to the energy draining sun, all that exertion finally took its toll and something was wrong with my sight. That single projection we all know as the world around us had diverged into two separate, but overlapping pictures. To add insult, it was twilight and long shadows and fading light made the view that much more bewildering. This was supposed to be magic hour, damn it!
My mind scrambled over the issue trying to focus on what strategies to attempt to try to overcome or at least cope with this difficulty. It made negotiating rocky mountain trails extremely difficult. I could only dare run on the extremely flat well groomed portions of the trail. The sunlight was quickly fading and I had to turn on my headlamp and hand held and keep moving.
The vision problem was troubling, but I dare not mention it to anyone lest the force me to take a break or worse stop. But I was also a bit worried about how I would be able to continue in the dark and was was about to find out.
At the Paso Picacho aid station I hit the food table and took an as much as I could as well as adding a couple of cups of coca cola and m&ms. Night was coming! Thankfully the extra sugar, salt, and caffeine seemed to clear up my vision issue and the next segment was only 5 miles!
But what a damn vertical 5 miles they were! This was Stonewall Mountain and we were to summit the bastard. Ok, it might not be Everest, but at the time it seemed like it. Dizzying switchback after switchback and way too vertical to run. Yes, a 100 mile endurance running is not all running, but climbs like this tax your legs and lungs more than flat running. Once at the top I took a moment to flip off my lights and appreciate the starry night. Then down the mountain I went.
My father again met me at the next aid station and went to fetch my drop bag that included all of my cold weather gear as this was to be the freezing portion of the race. Except the drop bag wasn’t there! A volunteer joined in the search as I sat down and chomped on pb and j, demoralized. They did not find my bag with my wool hat, glooves, and windbreaker. Luckily, as I’ve come to know this uber-generous ultra community, one of the volunteers had come prepared for his own cold night and let me borrow a long sleeve tech shirt. Thank you Tony Sandoval!!!
With my legs exhausted from 64 miles, that never-ending mountain, and sitting in the cold, I set out on the trail in a slow walk. My legs felt dead and although I had the long sleeve shirt the whole ordeal with the drop bag had knocked me back. In the course of an extreme endurance event one goes through numerous highs and lows, this moment was my emotional nadar.
I began to worry about the long and painful night to come, to wonder about the numerous hours of slow misery, to dread the prospect of not being able to run, and even ponder that 32 hour time limit. I had to take evasive maneuvers and some drastic action. I reached into my pack and pulled out some caffeine beans and my secret weapon that I held been holding in reserve: my ipod.
I always train with an ipod, hell it is not just a coincidence that my being able to run more than 2 miles at a time coincided with my first ipod. However, I try no to use them during races. It is my desire to be present and appreciate my surroundings and the full experience during the race, but I knew this 100 miler would push my limits so I brought every weapon I could think of. I popped in the earbuds and found my special play-list and pressed play. All Pearl Jam all the time, every studio album in succession. By the time Eddie Vedder was belting “I’m Still Alive”, I was back baby! And running at a solid pace.
I was still able to run at this point, but my feet were starting to hurt more and more with each step. I had been hit with a mild case of plantar fasciitis on my very last long training run and now it was catching up to me. In addition, my whole foot and even ankle was experience extra trauma due, no doubt, to unconscious compensations I was making with each stride.
Fortunately, for my feet at least, after the next aid station I had come to the last long steep climb. This time it was 8 miles back up the mountain in the dark. The trail had become a dirt road at this point, but the orange trail markers were so space out that I was in constant fear of missing a turn off. To make matters worse the beam from my hand held flashlight was growing noticeable dimmer and I had neglected to bring back up AA batteries! At least my headlamp was bright and I had plenty of AAAs for that. Stupid, stupid. I kept switching my flashlight on to search the sides of the road for any sign of a marker or a trail, then right back off. It was about this time that I finally saw another runner approaching form behind, it had been over an hour since I had seen a soul or even a lamp. He was marching at a brisk pace so I decided to slide in behind him and this Englishman gracisouly lead and helped pace me up the mountain. I thanked him once at the Sunset 2 aid station back on top the mountain.
With the 30 mile loop complete, the possibility of a finishing began to grow more realistic. Plus, there was only one more section, one more aid station to go until my father would begin pacing at Pioneer Mail. I begin to get the feeling that I might make it – of course I never let the thought creep in that I wouldn’t make it. Whenever that fear struck I pushed it back with my mantra: Just keep moving! This is also when that other feeling began to scream to be noticed: the blisters are coming, the blisters are coming!
As the blue morning light began to creep across the sky I pushed my pace as fast as I could and ran on the gentle and sandy soft parts of the trail, but they were few and very far between. With each step my foot pain screamed and was amplified by those now bulging blisters. These last 18 miles were going to be a painful challenge.
In the middle of all these miles and all this agony I was again reminded of why I pursued this adventure. This was truly a life experience and just then the sun peaked out from behind a distant mountain. Another day had come and I was still going. This was the experience, the experience of being on the edge, an adventure, running along the eastern crest of the Laguna Mountains with the land dropping steeply to your left for a thousand feet as the sun rises over the Anzea Barrego Desert. And everyone goes “ahhhh.”
But now the blisters were really screaming as I shambled into Pioneer Mail. At the aid station I sit to rest my feet and take a look at the blister that is forming on the ball of my feet. Then I notice my toe, my god, my toe. Its hidden under this huge ball of puss and blister. “Its too late” the lady says of my blister. The only thing she offers is some spray all over my feet. I switch shoes and socks willing to try anything for a little relief and prepare to battle these last 12.5 miles.
Although it was too painful to run more than twenty steps at this point, I tried to maintain a brisk marching pace, keep the cadence up and just keep moving. It will all be over soon. I hope.
Having my father hiking behind me was a great help. While mountain trail running is generally a solitary and lonely pursuit, 100 milers aren’t quite so. While the racers get so spread out that in the later stage you can go a long time without seeing anyone, there is still an aid station every 7-8 miles and most people of a crew waiting at several of stations to help them out. In addition, many runners utilize a pacer for the last half. This is partially for runner safety, but also for motivation. And I was grateful to have my pacer for those last painful miles as I struggled to just keep moving.
As I crested a small hill I thought I could hear the faint echoes of music or a pa system. That music floating through the mountain air is always such a motivating relief pulling you in to that aid station just around the bend, and in the case that station was the end. The trees gave way to a large meadow that I instantly recognized and a warmth grew in my chest. Just across the meadow was the gates to the Al Bahr campground and though those gates on to the finish line! My march quickened as I began negotiating with myself the exact distance I would attmpt to run to the finish. I came to a reasonable number, but of course that flew out the window when I turned a corner and saw the finish line. I broke into an all out sprint, which at this point couldn’t have been more than a 12 minute mile pace, but I didn’t care and I couldn’t feel anything.
A small crowd had gathered and lined the last few meters. The crews of each runner and all the finished runners were there to cheer and push their comrades those last few steps. Then I crossed the finish line. Scott Mills, the race director was there to meet me with a high five and embrace (for support!) as I finally stopped moving. I was gassed and they could tell. “What do you need?” He inquired. “A chair.” Just like that I was finally sitting, for good. It was over. I had done it. 100 miles.
I sat in that chair dazed, consumed whatever was put in front of me and eventually moved a few feet to the medical tent where they cleaned and soaked my feet. It was great just to have those damn shoes off. I gave what energy I could to cheer on each new runner as they finished their race. But mostly I just sat there exhausted, starring out into oblivion. Damn, 100 miles.